St. Avitus of Vienne
470 - 519
Feast Day: February 5
Born in Auvergne; died 519. Brother of Bishop Saint Apollinaris of Valence, Saint Avitus succeeded his father, Saint Isychius who had been a Roman senator, as bishop of Vienne. As a bishop he commanded the respect of his flock, the pagan Franks, and the Arian Burgundians. It was he who converted the Burgundian King Sigismund. Saint Avitus was also an eloquent writer
Bishop of Vienne. Avitus was the son of Bishop Isychius, a former Roman senator, and succeeded him in the see ofVienne in 490. He ransomed captives, became known for his wisdom and charity, and converted members of the Frankish tribes who dominated the region. He also presided over the Council of Epaon in 517. He was noted for his elegant writings, including an allegory, a poem on chastity, sermons, and letters.
Avitus was probably born at Vienne, for he was baptized by bishop Mamertus. In difficult times for the Catholic faith and Roman culture in southern Gaul, Avitus pursued with earnestness and success the extinction of Arianism among the Burgundians. He won the confidence of King Gundobad, and converted his son, King Sigismund (516-523).
The literary fame of Avitus rests on his many surviving letters (his recent editors make them ninety-six in all) and on a long poem, De spiritualis historiae gestis, in classical hexameters, in five books, dealing with the Biblical themes of Original Sin, Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge, the Crossing of the Red Sea. The first three books offer a certain dramatic unity; in them are told the preliminaries of the great disaster, the catastrophe itself, and the consequences. The fourth and fifth books deal with the Deluge and the Crossing of the Red Sea as symbols of baptism. Avitus deals freely and familiarly with the Scriptural events, and exhibits well their beauty, sequence, and significance. He is one of the last masters of the art of rhetoric as taught in the schools of Gaul in the 4th and 5th centuries. His poetic diction, though abounding in archaisms and rhythmic redundancy, is pure and select, and the laws of metre are well observed. The author of his article in the Catholic Encyclopedia claims "that Milton made use of his paraphrase of Scripture in writing Paradise Lost." Avitus also wrote a poem for his sister Fuscina, a nun, praising virginity.
The letters of Avitus are of considerable importance for the ecclesiastical and political history of the years between 499 and 518. Like his contemporary, Ennodius of Pavia, he was strenuous in his assertion of the authority of the Apostolic See as the chief bulwark of religious unity and the incipient Christian civilization. "If the pope," he says, "is rejected, it follows that not one bishop, the whole episcopate threatens to fall" (Si papa urbis vocatur in dubium, episcopatus videbitur, non episcopus, vaccilare. — Ep. xxxiv; ed. Peiper). His letters are also among the important primary sources of early Merovingian political, ecclesiastical, and social history. Among them is a famous letter to Clovis on the occasion of his baptism. Avitus addresses Clovis not as if he was a pagan convert, but as if he was a recent Arian sympathiser, possibly even a catechumen. The letters document the close relations between the Catholic Bishop of Vienne and the Arian king of the Burgundians, the great Gundobad, and his son, the Catholic convert Sigismund.
There was once extant a collection of his homilies and sermons, but they have all perished except for two, and some fragments and excerpts from others.
The so-called Dialogues with King Gundobad, written to defend the Catholic faith against the Arians and purports to represent the famous Colloquy of Lyon in 449, was once believed to be his work. Julien Havet demonstrated in 1885, however, that it is a forgery of the Oratorian, Jérome Viguier, who also forged a letter purporting to be from Pope Symmachus to Avitus.